Like a Manta Ray
Most writers she knows, Maggie Nelson writes, ‘nurse persistent fantasies about the horrible things – or the horrible thing – that will happen to them if and when they express themselves as they desire’. Everywhere she goes – ‘especially if I’m in drag as a “memoirist”’ – such fears appear to be uppermost in everybody’s mind. ‘People seem hungry, above all else, for permission, and a guarantee against bad consequences. The first, I try to give; the second is beyond my power.’ But why the fear of writing the thing you really want to? Whence the assumption that what you’d really want to write would be memoir?
Nelson herself writes autobiographically often. Jane: A Murder (2005) addressed, in sequences of short poems, the awful death of her mother’s sister in 1969. She ‘nursed terrible fears … that I would be murdered as Jane was, as punishment for my writerly transgressions.’ The police investigation was unexpectedly reopened just as the book went to press, causing renewed distress throughout Nelson’s family: thus a second book, The Red Parts, in 2007. Then, three or four years later, ‘a stalker of sorts’ started ringing Nelson at her office, saying her aunt had been ‘a stupidhead’ who had got what she deserved. Was this, then, the horrible thing, come to find her and slap her down?
The story of the stalker is only one of many that wind in and out of one another in Nelson’s current book. As far as we are told, nothing much comes of it. She is terrified, the police are useless, she hires a private detective until her money gives out; the stalker melts away. Unlike the questions with which Nelson permeates her story, about expression and permission and the terror of ‘bad consequences’ if you dare in writing to reach for your heart’s desire.
The Argonauts takes its name from a recurring image in Roland Barthes, the sort-of-autobiography Roland Barthes published in 1977, of ‘the ship Argo (luminous and white), each piece of which the Argonauts gradually replaced, so that they ended with an entirely new ship, without having to alter either its name or form’; except that Nelson’s Argo is not a ship or (as for Barthes) a workload, but a family unit, a home. A family, a home and a central, transformational question: ‘When or how do new kinship systems mime older nuclear-family arrangements and when or how do they radically recontextualise them in a way that constitutes a rethinking of kinship? How can you tell; or rather, who’s to tell?’
I’m guessing that Maggie probably met her partner, Harry, through work in some way, as both have teaching jobs at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, just north of LA. So they meet, they fall in love, they move in together – and immediately, their hilltop love nest has to double as a family home, ‘abundant and containing’, for Harry’s three-year-old son. A couple of years later and they are joined by Iggy, born from Maggie’s body by way of IVF and sperm donation. And so we have Harry, Iggy and Iggy’s brother, ‘the three Irish guys’ with whom Maggie is delightedly set to share her life.
Nelson, as we’ve figured, is a poet and academic with particular interests in philosophy, critical theory and contemporary art; Barthes emerges as one of many heroes in this book, along with Wittgenstein, Catherine Opie and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Harry is Harry Dodge, the artist, filmmaker and genderqueer pioneer, who chooses to live, biologically and socially, between genders while mostly answering to, and passing when he wants to, as ‘he’.
Language as most people know and use it has difficulties with such arrangements. ‘Before we met,’ Nelson writes, ‘I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained – inexpressibly! – in the expressed.’ And yet, she has to get a friend to go on Google to find out if Harry has ‘a preferred pronoun’; Nelson herself mostly uses ‘you’. Harry, meanwhile, has many reasons for his view that words are ‘not only not good enough, but corrosive to all that is good’. His ‘wheel of a mind’ brings forth ‘an art of pure wildness’, Nelson writes, whereas sometimes she thinks her own sentences do no more than mark that wildness’s grave.
Being by trade a poet of plain language – William Carlos Williams would be another hero, also George Oppen, also Eileen Myles – Nelson finds her artistic focus drawn in two main directions. On the one hand, she crafts her words until she gets them to ‘facet’ as accurately as she can: ‘How to explain that for some, or for some at some times, this irresolution is OK – desirable even … whereas for others, or for others at some times, it stays a source of conflict or grief?’ On the other, the new energies she has found in loving Harry surge straight back into her work: ‘The need to pay homage to the transitive, the flight, the great soup of being in which we actually live.’
Self-expression, desire, a get-out-of-jail-free card to protect against ‘bad consequences’: it isn’t hard to see how resonances particular to Maggie and Harry’s situation might outlive the fears Nelson suffered in her work about her aunt Jane. But there is nothing new, unfortunately, in the idea that you will automatically be punished if you start reaching further from, or in different directions to, what is expected of you – it’s a common fantasy with a powerful hold, especially on women. But that the form of the most desired self-expression would be memoir, or life-writing as universities now call it, or the ‘personal essays’ Lena Dunham has Hannah Horvath endlessly working on in Girls – that surely is a bit newer. In the old days, wasn’t it a novel that everybody wanted to write?
Plenty of people have theories about this shift in fashion and, usually, they approach it as a question to do with realist aesthetics. But it has just as much to do with the problem of aggression. One reason fiction evolved in the first place, presumably, was by analogy with smiles and handshakes, as a way of protecting people from rage and the impulse to start smiting; to allow the exploration of painful, shameful, careless, invested, unfair, selfish, cruel and voyeuristic thoughts and actions in a safely padded space.
But increasingly people are bored by this padding, by the rules that, as Elena Ferrante has put it, demand ‘a measuring stick, a calendar’ inserted between ‘you and the facts, the emotion to be narrated’. (‘That’s what we both hate about fiction, or at least crappy fiction,’ Nelson muses, after she and Harry get into a long argument after a hotel-room viewing of X-Men: First Class. ‘It purports to provide occasions for thinking through complex issues, but really it has predetermined the positions, stuffed a narrative full of false choices’).
So yes, by all means, chuck out the padding if you want to. But it will probably go better if you think hard about how you are going to handle your native authorial aggression without it – if you think about morality and ethics, in short. There’s already a flourishing subgenre about the ‘bad consequences’ that can follow if a writer doesn’t bother: libel, plagiarism, invasion of privacy; breach of trust, family hurt and fury; didn’t Dunham undergo something most uncomfortable on Twitter after writing about her sister’s vagina? But no lawyer can help a writer whose crimes, she has assumed, are victimless, until she finds out too late that they weren’t: ‘I do not think all autobiographical writing is essentially an act of betrayal,’ Nelson has written. ‘[But] in my experience it does nearly always make someone feel betrayed. It doesn’t have to be “brutal” to do so – all it has to do is offer the record of one person’s consciousness, one person’s interpretation of events that involved others, which is precisely what it cannot help but do.’
Nelson’s most thorough attempt to think through these questions comes in The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (2011), a book of linked essays that explore what she calls ‘the avant-garde’s long commitment to the idea that the shocks produced by cruelty and violence – be it in art or political action – might deliver us … to a more sensitive, perceptive, insightful, enlivened, collaborative and just way of inhabiting the earth, and of relating to our fellow beings’, an idea she finds no more than a hammy idée reçue. Maybe Nietzsche had a point when he suggested that people ‘take a new look at cruelty’ in Beyond Good and Evil. But, more than a century on, in what sense can such looking be ‘new’? Artaud longed for a theatre dedicated to ‘cruelty and terror’ among ‘famous personages, atrocious crimes and superhuman devotions’. But, as a friend quips to Nelson, this sounds pretty much like a normal morning browsing the news and gossip online.
Nelson is all for ‘excitements and effects’ which, she happily acknowledges, often come in art that seems to hang from Artaud’s coat-tails: ‘precision, transgression, purgation, productive unease, abjectness, radical exposure, uncanniness, unnerving frankness, acknowledged sadism and masochism, a sense of clearing or clarity’. And if, like me, you are not familiar with the queer and avant-garde art worlds of southern California, one joy of reading Nelson is getting introduced to them: Catherine Opie and A.L. Steiner, Chris Burden and Paul McCarthy, Ryan Trecartin and Mike Kelley, Nao Bustamante and William Pope.L. Nelson spends less time on work that, in her view, is stupid, arrogant or exploitative. Names that come up in this context tend to be better known to mainstream audiences: Neil LaBute, Michael Haneke, Lars Von Trier.
But it’s Nelson’s thoughts about the stuff that flickers in the middle that bears most directly on writers of memoir. The idea, for example, that if we can see the artist is suffering, that makes it OK that the artist is making us suffer too: Nelson draws examples from the Vienna Actionists, but personally, I’d rather witness Hermann Nitsch roll around in animal entrails than read any more celebrity misery porn, any more ‘brutal honesty’, any more ‘searing’ and ‘unsentimental’ prose ‘without a drop of self-pity’. There is an idea that artists have a priestly access to what Nelson calls ‘truth-truth’, the deeper truth hidden behind the ordinary truth that is all the little people have to go by. And so, by and by, all the minor bad habits roll up into one main one: bad art, Nelson considers, generally ‘underestimates the capacities and intelligence of most viewers’ and ‘overestimates that of most artists’. (I found myself thinking about Martin Amis – that thing he used to say about ‘the talent elite’.)
The art Nelson likes, on the other hand, has spaces in it, gaps and holes, swerves and paradox, opening ‘the possibility – and sometimes the arrival – of a third term into a situation that otherwise consists of but two opposing forces’. Permissions may need to be negotiated, subjects and audiences invited to consent: ‘This freedom is important … If you choose to abandon ship, you can then ponder the classic question. Did I fail the work, or did it fail me?’
The argument of the book itself enacts this ‘space-making’ conversational freedom, which doesn’t mean that difficulty is compromised at all. Arguments are as just as esoteric, allusive, tough, technical as they need to be; but then, beyond that, open thrillingly into more. In one marvellous moment, for example, after noting Artaud’s reaction (‘They do not realise they are dead!’) to the dismayal of the audience at his 1933 performance, The Theatre and the Plague, she writes:
I can’t speak to Artaud’s audience that evening, which may well have been full of easily offended, bourgeois putzes. But in my own life, I know I generally feel very alive and emancipated when I choose to walk out of something … The fact that the exit door isn’t barred, the feel of the fresh air on your face when you open it – all this serves to remind you of how good it feels to angle the full force of your body and attention toward that which seems to you a good use of your short time on the planet and to practise aversion towards that which is not.
‘These are freedoms,’ Nelson continues, ‘that life does not always grant; God help us if we would prefer an art that further whittled down the choices … You can’t rape someone into independence any more than you can deliver democracy at the tip of a gun.’
In form, The Argonauts is made up of individual untitled prose paragraphs, some bigger, some smaller, some linking, some discrete. Some are diary entries, some are mini-essays, some are unsent letters; there’s a fantastic ‘pain luge’ about the birth of Iggy, and a long email from Harry about the watch he kept with his mother in her room at the hospice as she died. There’s a lot of interleaved intertextual quoting, indicated in italics and with the authors cited down the left-hand margin, like Barthes did in A Lover’s Discourse; the bits about new kinship systems and older nuclear-family arrangements come from Judith Butler. And here’s another, from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a frequent and clearly much loved presence: ‘Queer is a continuing moment, movement, motive – recurrent, eddying, troublant. Keenly, it is relational, and strange.’
The book begins with the beginning of the love, October 2007: ‘The words I love you come tumbling out of my mouth in an incantation the first time you fuck me in the ass, my face smashed against the cement floor of your dank and charming bachelor pad.’ She hadn’t meant to say it, it just came out; ‘feral with vulnerability’, she tries to clarify. ‘I sent you the passage from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase “I love you” is like “the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name”.’ Nelson thinks she’s sending it because it’s so romantic; Harry reads it as ‘a possible retraction’. Not for the first or last time, it is of course both/and.
They hadn’t planned on marrying either until they belatedly noticed that their fellow Californians were about to pass Prop 8 – ‘Eliminates Right of Same-Sex Couples to Marry’ – into law (temporarily, as it turned out). It is, as Nelson puts it, a ‘truly strange … historical moment’. On the one hand, there’s ‘conservative anxiety and despair about queers bringing down civilisation and its institutions’. On the other, an equal and opposite ‘anxiety and despair’ felt by queers ‘about the failure or incapacity of queerness to bring down civilisation and its institutions, and their frustration with the assimilationist, unthinkingly neoliberal bent of the mainstream GLBTQ+ movement’. And so Maggie and Harry mark the strangeness in a ceremony presided over by Reverend Lorelei Starbuck and her drag-queen assistant, before ‘rush[ing] to pick up the little guy at day care before closing’ and coming home to eat ‘chocolate pudding all together in sleeping bags on the porch’.
The plot, such as it is, is made up of antinomies like this one, bending and knotting elegantly around each other. ‘Flush with joy’ and the ‘stack of cocks’ Harry keeps near his bedside, Maggie and Harry turn out to be just as enthusiastic about filling their house with Lego, a slide, a children’s swing: ‘It isn’t a penchant for decoration that differentiates us – birds really have a corner on that – it’s the compartmentalisation of space. The way we cook and shit and work in separate areas.’
A couple of years on, and just as Harry’s ‘inability to live in [his] skin’ is reaching peak unbearability, Maggie realises she is longing for a baby. By the time she’s pregnant, Harry’s on testosterone (‘Is there something inherently queer about pregnancy itself? … How can an experience so profoundly strange and wild and transformative also symbolise or enact the ultimate conformity?’). Then it’s 2011, ‘the summer of our changing bodies’. In Florida for Harry’s top surgery the lovers watch a breast cancer patient recover from a double mastectomy on the hotel-room television: ‘It was uncanny to watch her performing the same actions we were performing … but with opposite emotions. You felt unburdened, euphoric, reborn; the woman on TV feared, wept and grieved.’
Pregnant, transitioning, being born and dying; with breasts, without breasts, on T or oestrogen or FSH; ‘flying anuses, speeding vaginas’ (Deleuze/Guattari are credited in the margin. I bet you never guessed). The allegory of human bodies that emerges from these stories is warm and rich and constantly changing, ‘an inscrutable hormonal soup’; and in case you were getting an idea that Maggie is a stable centre in it, Nelson will see to it that you change your mind.
‘I am not interested in a hermeneutics, or an erotics, or a metaphysics, of my anus. I am interested in ass-fucking. I am interested in the fact that the clitoris, disguised as a discrete button, sweeps over the entire area like a manta ray, impossible to tell where its eight thousand nerves begin and end.’ The exhibitionism about ‘ass-fucking’ has a political function: Nelson is very keen on a construct she calls, after Susan Fraiman, ‘the sodomitical mother’, the idea that there’s no contradiction between people enjoying ‘non-normative, non-procreative sexuality’ and loving, caring for, protecting and enjoying children: ‘Note that a difficulty in shifting gears, or a struggle to find the time, is not the same thing as an ontological either/or.’
But it is also something else even deeper. The entire history of sex, sexuality, child-rearing and childbirth is marked and organised by ideas about biology and physical bodies that may once have had a tenuous rationale in sensible hygiene, but which have long since ceased to make the slightest sense. For example, the story of the female perineum: ‘If my husband watches me labour, how will he ever find me sexy again?’ Nelson reports reading in a pregnancy magazine. ‘Now that he’s seen me involuntarily defecate, and my vagina accommodate a baby’s head?’ (‘This question confused me,’ she writes. ‘Its description of labour did not strike me as exceedingly distinct from what happens during … much of the sex I had heretofore taken to be good.’)
Nelson proposes a completely different way of looking at sex and sexuality, child-rearing and childbirth and everything else: holding people when they need it, gathering them together when they fear disintegration, allowing them, as Winnicott put it, ‘to feel real’ – ‘a sensation that spreads’, as Nelson sees it, that ‘makes one want to live’. Winnicott’s ideas about ‘good-enough mothering’, as she says, are much ‘in resurgence’ at the moment, and yet she is struck that it’s impossible to buy his work in ‘an intimidating multivolume set’. It ‘has to be encountered in little bits’. Time and time again, though, through the crises of life and especially their terrible bookends, it is Winnicott more than any other who seems to help:
If the baby could speak to the mother, says Winnicott, here is what it might say:
I find you;
You survive what I do to you as I come to recognise you as not-me;
I use you;
I forget you;
But you remember me;
I keep forgetting you;
I lose you;
I am sad.
Absolutely love this book though I did and do, I also found it very troublant indeed. It breaks a taboo that runs deeper, even, than those against queer genders and sexualities, anal pleasure, breaking and remodelling the basic link between word and thing: the law that you must never speak of your happiness and contentment, because to do so is to spoil it and have it taken away. Harry, Nelson writes, is ‘someone with whom my perversities [are] not only compatible but perfectly matched’. Life with Iggy ‘isn’t just moments of happiness, which is all I thought we got. It’s a happiness that spreads.’ ‘The happiness police are going to come and arrest us if we go on this way,’ Maggie and Harry think, early in their love affair, ‘on the red couch, giggling.’ Is it just my envy or spite or whatever, that I’m still worrying that the horrible thing is about to come knocking?
‘Quiet ire’ is the way Nelson describes Harry’s mood after he reads an early draft of The Argonauts: ‘He tells me he feels unbeheld – unheld, even. I know this is a terrible feeling.’ Harry is, Nelson tells us, ‘a very private person, who has told me more than once that being with me is like an epileptic with a pacemaker being married to a strobe-light artist’; in other words, it’s Harry who has the relatively clear-cut and traditional relationship between private life and the art he makes for his public, and Maggie who cannot make a move without mixing them up. ‘But it’s my book, mine!’ Maggie squeals in the ensuing argument. ‘A writer’s narcissism,’ Harry says. ‘I guess I wasn’t ready to lose sight of my own me yet,’ Nelson shakily concludes.
A consensus, presumably, is negotiated with Harry, and Iggy’s brother, now a schoolboy, is never named, perhaps by his choice. But what about Iggy? ‘Who am I kidding?’ Nelson asks herself. ‘This book may already be doing wrong.’ ‘Most of my writing usually feels to me like a bad idea,’ she has said a little earlier, ‘which makes it hard for me to know which ideas feel bad because they have merit, and which ones feel bad because they don’t.’
Often, she continues, she watches herself ‘gravitating toward the bad idea’ like ‘the final girl in a horror movie’ – except that brave, clever and magnificent though they often are, these final girls are generally not as subtle, thoughtful, scrupulous, responsible as Nelson’s work has already revealed her to be. ‘Somewhere along the line,’ she concludes, ‘I gained an outsize faith in articulation itself as its own form of protection.’ Somewhere along a line that has clearly involved enormous amounts of work and care.
But what if, this time, in spite of all the care she’s taken, something goes amiss? ‘There is no inoculation,’ Nelson wrote in The Art of Cruelty, ‘only unsteady compromise, negotiation. If one is lucky, such dissonances can offer insight into the ways in which writing serves as a seismograph of feeling, an open-eyed charting of what has come down the river, rather than as a testament to unchanging emotional truths or desires.’ No one knows how many heroes finally sailed with Jason to Colchis, beyond the edge of the known world. But what we do know, from many sources, is that not all the Argonauts would make it back.